Boxing: Oxford boxers on ring road to domination: Jonathan Rendall on the remarkable team leading a resurgence of university boxing

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MYSTERY shrouds the most formidable team in the rapidly expanding world of university boxing. Dr Tim Fell, administrator of the vaunted Oxford University squad who take on Cambridge today, makes it clear that he does not want the won-lost records of his men revealed. His star pupil, Alex Mehta, a lightweight, agrees. 'When Cambridge think of us I want them to be looking into darkness,' Mehta says.

It is deemed acceptable to say that 23-year-old Mehta is unbeaten in three years, the first boxer to win three consecutive Blues for over a decade. In fact, there have been no losses this season. Oxford boxers have participated in 15 bouts against student, military and local opposition, and won them all. Last year they beat Cambridge 8-1. In the recent British student championships, Oxford entered five boxers: five gold medals came back down the M40.

The resurgence of Oxford boxing in the 1990s is all the more surprising, considering that in the 1970s the club almost went under and until the mid-to-late 1980s, because of lack of members, generally played the role of sacrificial victim to the enemy on the Cam (Cambridge still lead overall, 44-39, but have lost for the last eight years).

In those dark times the most relished highlight of the year for many Cowley folk was seeing the ridiculous Bridesheadian pugilists, including this writer, being led to their slaughter at a smoky club in Kidlington for the annual Town versus Gown match. The reigning Miss Oxford would then hand out the trophies. Yearly, a succession of grotesquely battered aesthetes affronted her beauty.

Then, the club's long-time trainer was an affable bookmaker named Percy Lewis, a former world-class professional featherweight who once challenged the great Hogan 'Kid Bassey' and was renowned as a deadly body puncher. Operating on a shoestring from the Iffley Road gym, Lewis did his best with the dwindling crew of motley recruits but in the end threw in the towel and returned to his native Trinidad.

'Back in the early 1980s Oxford and Cambridge were the last bastions of university boxing,' Fell, a former light-heavywight Blue now working in Oxford, says. 'Now you have 21 universities and institutes of higher education competing in the student championships.' One might have thought the arrival of such widespread competition would consign the Dark Blue boxers to even greater ignominy, but strangely the reverse happened.

In the late 1980s, boxing had become fashionable again and in Lewis's absence the club took on three new trainers, including a former army champion and menswear retailer named Henry Dean, to cope with the demand. Dean is now trainer-in-chief as well as running the bar at Vincent's, the Blues club on Oxford High Street favoured by rugby hearties.

Dean, it is obvious, does not kowtow to anyone. Before Christmas, when Lennox Lewis spoke at the Oxford Union, he dropped in to Vincent's beforehand with his manager, Frank Maloney. Only Dean was there. While conceding that Lewis was 'not bad', he proceeded to regale him with various tips as to how the world heavyweight champion could improve his technique.

Dean does not make extravagant claims for his boxers. 'They wouldn't win ABA titles but they're higher standard than novices,' he said. 'Our boxers are not technically that good but they're exceptionally fit and dedicated.' Of Cambridge's prospects, he said: 'No chance. Not unless I go down and work with them and then it might take another year.'

Dean did not rule out expanding the Oxford fixture list to include some of the country's top clubs, including even the famous Repton club in London's East End that produced professional world champions such as John H Stracey and Maurice Hope. 'This is a warning to Repton,' Dean said. 'In two or three years, we'll be ready to take them on - their novices, that is.'

Members of the Oxford team, which includes students of Arabic, medicine and philosophy and an economist heavyweight who has played Australian Rules football professionally, would not be tempted by any professional offers, according to Mehta, the grandson of a wrestler from Birmingham, who is studying law.

'My mum wouldn't let me turn pro, and she's a lot harder than me,' he said. 'Anyway, what I like about university boxing is that you're fighting for something other than a contract. My grandfather told me: 'If you're intelligent and you can fight, then you're special.'

These two qualities have led to some resentment among student boxers elsewhere, exacerbated by the securing by Dr Fell of two sponsorship deals for the club with blue-chip companies. 'At the last student championships it did get a bit nasty,' Fell said. 'One of our lads got a decision over a very hard lad from Wolverhampton and people were coming up and saying: 'You only got it because you're Oxford. Who do you think you are?'

Mehta, still wincing from a body-punching tutorial with Percy Lewis, who has returned to Oxford to help out, had no time for such accusations. 'Boxing is 16 square feet of equal opportunity,' he said. 'It doesn't matter what class you're from. We had a couple of rugby players come down to the gym, swaggering in because they were so much bigger than us. Of course, they ended up with bloody faces. It's great, that humbling process.'

(Photograph omitted)

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